Sarnia’s growing homeless population faces a bleak winter ahead

Brent Blackbird, 22, a third-year student in Lambton College’s Child and Youth Care program, was among about 100 activists attending an anti-poverty rally at City Hall on Oct. 18. Hosted by the Poverty Reduction Network in Sarnia-Lambton, the event featured stories told by residents struggling to get by. Troy Shantz

Troy Shantz

It’s shaping up to be a long, cold winter for Sarnia’s homeless.

Both of the city’s homeless shelters are at capacity and have been for the past year. And an ongoing shortage of affordable housing has created bleak prospects for people living on the street, said Myles Vanni, executive director at Inn of the Good Shepherd.

“Until more housing gets built — and affordable housing gets built — we’re going to be in this crisis,” said Vanni, who also oversees The Good Shepherd’s Lodge homeless shelter.

The 27-resident facility on Confederation Street is often forced to turn people away, Vanni said – a far cry from two years ago when 15 residents a night was the norm.

What’s more, emergency funding of $45,000 used to shelter 99 homeless individuals at local motels in January and February isn’t available this winter due to provincial cutbacks, Vanni added.

“The real worry is that we don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know how we’re going to manage this.”

River City Sanctuary plans to add three additional beds to the 20-bed men’s shelter, said housing director Owen Vroom.

Officials at the Mitton Street church and drop-in centre are also laying the groundwork for a women’s residence, he added.

“Tonight, there’s going to be 25 people, so we’re five over capacity,” he said, standing in the lobby of the former YMCA building where people sought warmth last week on the first truly cold day of October.

According to Vroom, Sarnia has “hundreds of empty apartments,” and he blames the shortage of units on legal barriers for property owners and landlords.

Owen Vroom, housing director at River City Sanctuary, said three more beds are being added to address growing homelessness in the city.
Troy Shantz

“If someone decides to not pay their rent, the way the court system works here, it can take upwards of half a year to get someone out of your apartment,” he said.

Vroom said about 25 people are enrolled in River City’s transitional housing program, which he oversees. Through it, the Sanctuary places people in apartments and assists them with applications and rental deposits.

Vanni said the big reason so many people are living on the streets is rapidly rising real estate prices.

Property owners are renting their units – at a premium – to contract industrial workers and college students, shutting out those who can’t afford to pay more, he explained.

In four years Sarnia’s vacancy rate has been halved, he said, and a one-bedroom apartment that cost $700 now fetches almost $1,000 a month.

And many who can afford a roof are still struggling to pay for other essentials, Vanni said, a reality felt keenly at the Inn’s food bank on Devine Street.

In response, Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley has requested a Nov. 2 briefing for Lambton County council and staff to review what strategies and funding is needed for the coming winter.

“All information indicates, factual and anecdotal, the issues of homelessness and addictions have increased significantly in our communities, and particular in the City of Sarnia,” he said.

Stocks of food and clothing are running low at River City, said Vroom. Also in need are used cell phones that are unlocked and set-up for residents hunting for housing and jobs, he added.

“If you’re homeless you really need a phone. You have no chance of getting an apartment if you don’t have a phone, or getting a job, or being able to contact people.”